THE DARK AGES 109 formed the most important element in it But even if that be so, the Irish schools differed in certain essential respects*from the monastic schools of the Continent. In the first place, they were not confined to those in Holy orders, but, like those of their Druid predecessors, were open to the laity. On this point there is striking testimony from the Ecclesiastical History of the Venerable Bede. Speaking of the yellow plague which raged in both Britain and Ireland in 664, he says: " There were in Ireland at this time many people of English race, both nobles and men of lower rank, who had left their island and withdrawn to Ireland to study the sacred writings or to lead a simple life. Some of these soon bound themselves to the monastic discipline. Others preferring to remain free to change their domicile and their teachers found their pleasure in study. The Irish received them gladly, provided them with their daily food free of cost, furnished them with books to read, and gave them gratuitous instruction."* In the second place, the Irish scholars were at an early date keen students of the classics. At a time when the Western Church was ignorant of the literature of Greece and distrustful of the literature of Rome, the Irish monks were enthusiastically studying both. In their remote island home they had none of the fear of the subversive power of the paganism embodied in the classical writings which obsessed many of their brethren elsewhere, and they were able to appreciate them at their proper literary value. The missionaries who crossed over from Ireland to Gaul towards the end of the Sixth Century were well versed in literature and wrote much purer and better Latin than any of their contempor- aries ; and throughout the two following centuries their successors enjoyed a great reputation as Greek scholars. " The knowledge of Greek, which had almost vanished in the West," writes Sandys,*}* " was so widely diffused in the schools of Ireland, that if any one knew Greek, it was assumed that he must have come from that country." In the third place, unlike the Roman clergy, who generally confined their attention to Latin and ignored the vernacular of the peoples among whom they worked, the Irish monks maintained a lively interest in the native language and literature. An incident in the life of St. Columba illustrates this point. Adamnan, the * iii, 27. f History of Classical Scholarship, i, 437.